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Opinion | Is the West Becoming Pagan Again?

Of course, the pagan culture of Rome was no small achievement. It had its artists and intellectuals, along with its robust natural religions, and could not simply be scolded and shamed out of existence. Paganism has always exerted a subterranean tug on the thinking of the Christian West. The Renaissance, with its rediscovery of Epicurus and Lucretius, is a familiar example.

Pagans thought that the collapse of their beliefs would mean the collapse of Rome. Many 21st-century conservatives believe something similar about the erosion of Christian values: that the liberties of our open society are parasitical on our Christian inheritance and that when that inheritance collapses, civilization will, too.

Ms. Delsol does not see things quite that way. The ethics of the Christian age, she notes, were shot through with unacknowledged borrowings from the pagan values Christianity replaced. (Consider stoicism or the Hippocratic oath in medicine.) In the same way, today’s post-Christian progressivism comes with a large helping of Christianity. Why use Christian matrimony to unite gay couples, for example, rather than a new institution less wrapped up in Christian values? Because that is just the piecemeal way that civilizational change happens.

So if another civilization comes to replace Christianity, it will not be a mere negation, such as atheism or nihilism. It will be a rival civilization with its own logic — or at least its own style of moralizing. It may resemble the present-day iconoclasm that French commentators refer to as le woke. (The term means basically what it does in English, except that French people see wokeness as a system imported wholesale from American universities and thus itself almost a religious doctrine.)

Christianity the religion has teachings about loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek that are impressively clear. For Christianity the culture, though, these can be sources of ambivalence. Christianity has produced some hardened moralizers, to put it mildly. But there has always been a tension between its teachings and its quest for political power.

Ms. Delsol worries that le woke has no such hesitation. Speech codes, elementary school consciousness-raising, corporate public service advertising — in some ways our public order is coming to resemble that of pagan Rome, where religion and morality were separated. Religion was a matter for the household. Morality was determined and imposed by society’s elites, with grim results for freedom of thought.

Whether or not a society is tolerant of rival ideas has less to do with its leaders’ idle ideological positioning and much more to do with their position in a historical cycle. When in A.D. 384 Christians succeeded in removing the pagan Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate, where it had stood for almost four centuries, the pagan statesman Symmachus understood that Rome’s tolerance would henceforth be denied to those who had built it. If we know Symmachus for one sentiment today, it is his condemnation of Christianity’s dogmatic claims to truth as an affront against common sense. “There cannot be only one path toward such a great mystery,” he said.

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